JITTERS AS FALL APPROACHES

Byline: Melanie Kletter

NEW YORK — Volatility is inherent to the junior sector, where trends come and go faster than a cheap Manhattan apartment.
However, with the murky economic picture, teen companies are preparing for even rockier times than usual as they head into the all-important back-to-school and fall seasons.
Vendors are scaling back their offerings and counting on items such as novelty denim and T-shirts, rather than a whole collection, to drive business. At the same time, retailers said they are planning more conservatively and keeping inventory lean, so as not to become bogged down with excess merchandise if sales start to slow.
“You have to be better than before for someone to buy your line,” said David White, president of Syrup Clothing Co., a better-priced junior company based in Los Angeles. “You have to be better than you have ever been in every way possible.”
That statement was echoed by vendors and retailers throughout the industry.
Michael Burwasser, vice president and creative director at the Brat catalog, said “teens are unforgiving, and retailers that don’t have the right merchandise are going to get killed.”
While Burwasser said his business has been strong lately, he said his company has started doing more business online to cut costs.
Nonetheless, some said that if the economy gets worse, the teen sector might be slightly better off than other segments of the apparel industry, since teens are often immune from the macroeconomic factors that affect their parents.
“Young customers are less susceptive to a downturn in that they don’t listen to [Federal Reserve Board chairman] Alan Greenspan or watch the stock market,” said Laura Weil, chief financial officer at American Eagle Outfitters. “Often, if times are bad, if people are going to make a reduction in spending, it will be their own clothing and not their children’s.”
Nonetheless, American Eagle Outfitters is strictly watching its inventory levels, she said.
Peter Yoo, president of One Clothing, a junior sportswear firm based in Los Angeles, said his company is looking to distribution channels outside the U.S., especially in developing countries, to provide a buffer, if the U.S. economy continues to downturn.
“Also, we have a strong private-label backbone that is not affected as considerably as brands during slow periods in the industry,” Yoo said.
Lord of the Fleas, a four-store junior and contemporary retailer based in Manhattan, has also scaled back on certain items.
“We are definitely being more lean,” said Jeremy Archer, owner and founder of the chain. “Business has been very tough lately. It’s really tricky because you need to bring in new things but you don’t want to bring in merchandise if other merchandise is not selling.”
He added that “for fall, I am really trying to concentrate on the hottest items.”
Among the items he is banking on are crochet dusters — long sweaters that have grown in popularity throughout this year — as well as baby T-shirts.
Also, Lord of the Fleas has made some adjustments in its merchandise. Archer said the stores have stopped carrying gift items, such as picture frames and hat boxes, and is stocking shoes instead, which are a better mix with apparel, he said.
Reflecting vendors’ hesitancy to take too many risks right now, many junior fashions for fall are consistent with trends from the past few seasons, with some slight tweaks. Eighties looks and punk influences remain strong, and T-shirts and denim continue to flood the market.
Stephen Hardy, design director at Squeeze, said he was looking to items, such as novelty denim, including pieces with graffiti and stretch materials for fall, and is adding new details, such as piping and belts, to spice up his line.
Younique, the junior sportswear firm, is zeroing in on a puckered top that conforms to the wearer’s body, said Peter Kossoy, president.
However, not everyone is playing it safe.
At b., the year-old junior division of Bisou Bisou, offering funky fashions is important to maintaining the identity of the line, said Vanessa Witke, sales manager. Among b.’s key looks are printed colored denim, trouser fabrics, wide waistbands on pants and skirts and micro-miniskirts.
“You can’t be too safe,” Witke said. “While it is going to be tough, we have to keep people’s attention, especially as a new company.”

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